The Film: Nighthawks (1981) – WARNING: SPOILERS
The Principals: Sylvester Stallone, Billy Dee Williams and Rutger Hauer.
Rutger Hauer is Europe’s most dangerous and feared terrorist, and he’s coming to New York. When he appears in the States tough cops Billy Dee and Sly are assigned the task of tracking him down before he wreaks (more) havoc on the place.
Is it Good: Of course it is. This was the time where Stallone was doing more serious fair (F.I.S.T. and Victory), and Billy Dee had just been great in The Empire Strikes Back. Rutger was making his American theatrical debut and Lindsey Wagner was through with The Bionic Woman. Originally conceived as a third French Connection movie, it was later developed by David Shaber (The Warriors) into Nighthawks. Stallone later claimed Universal gave up on the movie and cut it to shreds, taking out a lot of stuff that would have made the movie far more successful than it turned out to be. I love this movie as it is and can only imagine what was left out, so the fact it was ransacked by the studio and still turned out great is amazing.
Sly is Deke DaSilva, a bearded tough-ass cop who loves to wear massive glasses. Bill Dee is his partner Matthew Fox, who gets derailed by a slice to the cheek. Hauer is great as Wulfgar the evil, and Lindsay Wagner is DaSilva’s ex-wife. It’s a weird cast by today’s standards, and probably was even then. Wagner was known more for her TV work, Hauer wasn’t known at all in the States! Billy Dee had just played Lando and Stallone was typecast as Rocky after two films. The director (Bruce Malmuth) hadn’t really done anything yet (he would do Hard to Kill about 10 years later) and had about $5 million to play with. Plus, the story goes that he couldn’t even be there on the first day of shooting: Stallone handled that duty until Malmuth appeared on day 2! So the movie didn’t really have a whole lot going for it when it was released.
Despite all of this it got a lot of good reviews when it was released, made back its paltry budget and turned out to be a damn good cop thriller. It hailed from the 70’s era of building up tension without resorting to constant explosions and shootouts (the way the 80’s would handle these types of movies), and relying more on characters and drama. And then there’s the “big reveal” shot at the end, where Stallone puts on a blond wig and shoots Rutger. It’s the type of shot that, in a perfect world, would have been considered an iconic one. Screw it… it IS iconic. It’s such a ridiculous notion, that Wulfgar would even think it was Lindsay Wagner until the last minute when DaSilva spins around and unloads his gun into the terrorist. Stallone looks so silly it’s perfect.
In the end Nighthawks was a transition for the two leads: Hauer would do Blade Runner next and Stallone would go on to First Blood shortly after another Rocky detour. After those he would find it hard to get back to the smaller, critically acclaimed films like Nighthawks.
Random Anecdotes: The music was composed by Keith Emerson, of Emerson, Lake & Palmer fame, but it’s actually a bit on the bland side (synthesizers galore, which I normally love). A real shame, because I think it deserved a more memorable score, maybe something along the lines of a Dirty Harry-type composition.